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Platforms for social innovation

Platforms are not a new idea. Over a hundred years ago Messrs Sears and Roebuck pioneered a business to enable remote shopping, using their catalogue to bring ever more exotic goods to the doorsteps of the most far-flung farm or homestead across the United States. But theirs wasn’t a single component innovation; to make it work they needed to build an ecosystem. Selling was only a part of the story; realising their value proposition depended on paying attention to a host of other elements, things like capturing and processing orders, procuring stock, storage and distribution, handling logistics over a large area and managing the cash flows so that they had the money upfront in order to fund the whole operation. It was like a giant jigsaw puzzle and it took them a couple of years before they managed to wrestle the right pieces into place.

Above all they were smart enough to recognise that they didn’t need to own or control everything as long as they could orchestrate and co-ordinate it. They partnered with a host of players like domestic appliance makers, finance houses, and shipping companies to create a win-win model in which everyone was able to take a share in the rapidly growing market. From dolls to power tools, bicycles to fur coats, seeds to automobiles the model linked millions of people in a market square the size of a continent. And it was a platform on which innovation flourished; once the basic model was established it became a breeding ground for new goods and services, new ways of creating and providing value.

The difficulty in those days lay in the mechanics; building such a platform on the back of a largely analogue system wasn’t easy. Finding customers spread out across the sprawling plains and along the coasts and then serving them with what they needed stretched the limits of the US postal system and the many other players who had to deal not just with a ‘last mile’ problem but with the thousands of miles in between.

Today’s digital context changes that. Now we can have both richness and reach in terms of the range and quality of services and their availability to anyone. Network effects act as multipliers, not constraints. Platforms have emergent properties; the whole becomes greater than, rather than being limited by, the sum of the parts. As Annabel Gawer and colleagues show in their excellent book about platforms, the skill lies in creating open models and allowing for a loose form of governance rather than tight control.

We have plenty of examples to make the point. Once established today’s platform businesses can grow fast and innovate in many directions. Amazon is a typical case; less than thirty years ago it was an on-line bookseller; now it’s the dominant player in a global on-line version of the Sears and Roebuck model but it’s simultaneously a huge advertising business, an entertainment giant, a technology services player and a finance house.

It’s not alone; players like Yandex dominate the Russian-speaking world with their platform which grew, like Google, from a 1990s start-up in the field of search engines to offering food, internet shopping, transportation services and financial services. In China Jack Ma’s Alibaba operation built up from a business-to-business service (B2B) offering to become another giant, active in advertising, finance, entertainment and even on-line matchmaking, with an estimated user base close to one billion people.

Everywhere we look we can see platform models emerging. At its heart the idea is simple; establish a core model and then allow other players to interact across it, creating a living innovation system which feeds itself. eBay and Alibaba’s Taobao enable consumer to consumer offerings, Apple and Android connect developers with users, Wordpress and Wix enable hundreds of thousands of websites and communities. Collaborative innovation across shared platforms is becoming big business, accelerating models of networked development for companies like Fujitsu, Airbus and Nokia.

Amongst all of this interest and activity it’s worth looking at the potential platforms might have for social innovation. Can we create an ecosystem to help enable better linkage between social needs and means, one which allows the development of innovations across it?

Take the case of M-PESA. Originally a development aid project created in Kenya in 2007 as a result of collaboration between Vodafone and its subsidiary Safaricom working with the UK’s Department for International Development it offered a mobile phone- based money transfer service. Its popularity and technical sophistication grew and it became not only an alternative banking and financial system for anyone with access to a phone but the basis for cashless transactions in goods and services. By 2010 it was the most successful mobile-phone based financial service in the developing world, effectively providing banking and financial support to the vast number of people normally excluded from that system. Currently close to half of Kenya’s GDP passes across the platform while versions of it can be found in 96 countries around the world. The industry body GSMA estimates that there are now over 1.2 billion accounts with transaction levels running at over $2bn per day. Its impact in other fields, like humanitarian aid, has been radical, changing the face of the way aid is distributed through agencies like the World Food Programme which now offers the bulk of its famine support via mobile finance.

One place where such a platform model for social innovation might help is the world of schools. By their nature they are not isolated ventures in which a single simple transaction takes place, converting uneducated children into the citizens of tomorrow. Schools already represent communities, ecosystems which draw together many players with a concern for and interest in the process.

Directly they involve teachers and pupils, and a physical infrastructure of classrooms and equipment. But around them are support staff maintaining, catering, delivering goods and services. There are agencies providing funding and setting ground rules, there are training colleges and universities growing the next generation of teachers, there are educational technology provers working on new and improved equipment.

And of course there are parents, not simply sending their children off to be processed but taking an active part in the system, raising money, sitting on governing boards, volunteering their skills and time.

Beyond them is a wider ring of players – the local businesses (whose staff are also parents) offering support, goods and services to help. They provide windows on the world of work, opportunities for experience through internship or offering projects and they share their experience through visits, talks and other forms of engagement.

We could extend the old saying that ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ to say that it takes a community to support a school. Covid-19 has brought this vividly into focus; the pandemic has posed huge challenges to education which have required urgent innovation. At the centre have been the heroic efforts in schools themselves to adapt physical and learning structures but they’ve been supported by a wave of community-led action.

For example the shift to home-schooling created a demand for hardware and software to enable it; within days people and organizations were donating old or unused equipment, companies were sharing IT resources and technicians, program creators were offering free access to educational software and teaching tools and parents were offering training and support.

This kind of challenge is one to which, thankfully, we rise at a community level. But the ad hoc ways in which this often happens also suggests that there might be scope to improve on that model. What we have, in effect, is the set of ‘market’ conditions around which a platform might be built.

And that’s where the limits of the self-organised school community emerge. There’s ‘information asymmetry’; even though there is plenty of goodwill and enormous untapped reserves of experience and resources which could be brought into play no-one knows quite what is needed, when and where.

But information asymmetry is a classic platform problem – think about Uber and the many ride sharing models which use a platform approach to provide a better match between those seeking transportation and those offering it. Or AirBnB on the accommodation problem. Or eBay linking buyers and sellers, even those interested in the most arcane items. They are all using a platform approach to iron out the asymmetry and link players more efficiently.

Of course it’s hard when you’re busy fighting off the alligators snapping at your legs to think of what you might achieve if you drained the swamp. But that’s where platform entrepreneurs come in; people with the vision and energy to explore alternative ways to bring players together, to make the existing ‘market’ for goods and services work more efficiently. And once the basic foundations are laid the possibility for additional services, new ways of matching needs and means emerges. They become innovation platforms, built on the idea of better connectivity.

One example is LetsLocalise, a UK social venture working in the schools sector in the UK and growing fast. Founded just over two years ago its strapline – ‘connected communities’ – says a lot about it. It offers a digital platform that responds to the increasing challenges facing schools in the UK by seeking to connect them with the untapped goodwill within their local communities. It’s a multi-user platform which connects a variety of participants, including schools, parents, individual experts, businesses and alumni.

As Gaurav Garg, one of the founders, explains, ‘people want to give back but don’t have a way or a platform to do so’. The underlying motivation is clear; you can see it on any weekend across the country in the form of fund-raising efforts organized by volunteers like school fairs, raffles and table-top sales. Let’s Localise is using a platform approach to try to channel and direct this huge potential resource more effectively. Divya Garg, co-founder, describes their model as an intricate machine;

‘We have a central cog which is a school, around that we have different cogs which are alumni, parents, businesses, charities and government…. we are trying to give a steady spin to each cog….’

  • · ‘Pledge a Penny’ - which allows users to pledge money to specific funding schemes set up by schools.

  • · ‘Pledge a Resource’ - where direct funding is not always the answer, this option allows users to pledge resources for which schools have specifically expressed a need.

  • · ‘Pledge a Minute’ – this pledge allows users to pledge their time, via expert talks, coaching sessions, or practical skills.

Building on this core they have continued to innovate, adding elements which introduce gamification to encourage participation, ‘entertainments’ support to enable various on-line fundraising activities and adding products to draw in employees from local and national businesses.

A strong feature of the platform is the way it addresses the information asymmetry question; visitors to the site may originally be interested in helping their local school in some way. But the platform highlights other schools and their campaigns, perhaps outside of their locality, but in line with their goals.

In similar fashion many companies are interested in the model as a way of giving back to the community as part of their corporate social responsibility (CSR) strategy. The platform uses analytics to show them schools and projects that are in line with their goals, but which may be outside of their usual remit or locality. This model is then reinforced by emailing businesses each time a CSR opportunity arises that relates to their historical activity. In this way, Let’s Localise is trying to ‘democratise goodwill’- providing opportunities to schools that are overlooked under usual circumstances.

Is it working? The signs are promising; from an initial start in Wokingham ( small town south west of London) the platform has grown to involve 42,000 students in 185 schools. It has drawn in over 5500 supporters pledging their services and linked a growing number of companies directly to formal support programmes. It has also attracted national attention, partnering with major corporations like mobile phone service provider 3, media giant Verizon or the insurance company Legal and General (who recently donated 800 laptop computers to support schools in the Cardiff area). In a context where funding for schools has fallen by 8% over the past decade the platform has mobilised support with an estimated impact of close to £250,000.

As with any platform the power (but also the challenge) lies in moving to scale; the signs suggest that LetsLocalise is well on its way to reach its target of helping 1 million children over the next five years. And in doing so it is helping pioneer the use of platforms as a key tool in social innovation.

There’s a lot of talk about ‘getting back to normal’ after the pandemic.And whilst that’s something we fervently wish for there may also be elements of ‘Covid-life’ that we might want to hold on to.Things like the crowdsourcing of ideas and efforts around solving important problems, the spirit of co-operation and shared focus, and the sense of communities caring for each other. Platforms like LetsLocalisepoint the way to models for helping us do so.

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